I’m not alone in thinking that the NHL lost its best defenseman for the rest of the season when Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators suffered his horrific Achilles injury earlier this month. Since the Norris Trophy has to go to someone in Karlsson’s absence, the field is wide open–and it should include the Detroit Red Wings’ Niklas Kronwall.
The 32-year old Swede’s case got a lot stronger after he put up six points in the Wings’ back-to-back weekend games. He’s quietly taken over the scoring lead among blueliners by slipping ahead of Kris Letang and Kevin Shattenkirk, both of whom are looking like top Norris candidates. Purists always grumble that offense plays too much of a factor in deciding who takes home the trophy, but we all know that if Kronwall continues to produce, he’s got a good chance of elbowing his way into the conversation.
What’s somewhat surprising is that after scoring a career-high 15 goals last season, Kronwall has turned into more of a distributor in 2013. His current pace would give him 33 assists by season’s end, which would top the number of helpers he’s dished out in all but one of the 82-game seasons he’s played. It’s a role that needed to be filled with the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom, and Kronwall has stepped up accordingly.
As the only defenseman on Detroit’s top power play unit (Damien Brunner usually mans the other point), Kronwall’s numbers with the man advantage suffered along with those of his teammates in the early going. But as the Red Wings’ 8-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday showed, the power play is starting to show signs of life, and Kronwall’s booming slap shots are part of the reason why.
Always known as a fearsome open ice checker, the physical side of his game is less apparent this year–perhaps due to the arrival of Jordin Tootoo, who now administers most of the team’s “statement” hits. Kronwall has been good for about 1.5 hits per game since the NHL started keeping the stat, and he’s down to less than one hit in the current campaign. That still leaves him in the same neighborhood as the players whose names are being thrown around for the Norris, and his reputation as someone you need to be aware of on the ice remains intact.
Some numbers are more obviously working against Kronwall. The +3 he picked up in his most recent outing still only got him to -4 on the season. As a team, the Red Wings have given up more goals than all but two other teams in the West. Can the best defenseman in the league really be someone whose personal and team numbers fall short in such crucial measures?
The answer is… yes, in the right context. Only two of the last 13 Norris winners finished with a plus-minus in the red, but there’s a recent precedent in Lidstrom, who was -2 while picking up his last award. The team defense is probably more damning, though if voters take into account the way the Wings defense corps has been decimated by injuries–and some of the comedy stylings of Kyle Quincey and Jakub Kindl even when they’ve been healthy–it should be harder to hold all those goals against Kronwall.
On top of that, some of the other supposed frontrunners have similar issues. Shattenkirk is only +1, teammate Alex Pietrangelo is a -2, and their Blues haven’t been locking opponents down the way they did last year. Victor Hedman is a sturdy +10, but the Lightning have allowed even more goals than the Red Wings.
The bottom line is that without Karlsson, there’s a window of opportunity for someone outside Ottawa to sneak in and claim a Norris Trophy. Kronwall is playing heavy minutes, going up against the other team’s top lines, chipping in plenty of points and giving opposing forwards something to think about with the threat of his physical play. That might not be enough to win him the award, but it should be sufficient to earn him some consideration.